Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass would share every airman's story if she could. Knowing an individual's backstory helps people connect on a deeper level, be open to different points of view and find shared experiences, she believes.
Since assuming her role in August, Bass, the Air Force's first female top enlisted leader, has taken time to focus on individual airmen, telling their stories on her Facebook page.
But Bass says she had a blind spot in her judgment when she reshared one airman's story.
"I'll be honest: When I read things, I'm a very optimistic person, and I see the positive in all situations, because we all have a journey and a history and a past," she said in an interview with Military.com last week.
Bass reshared an article by Senior Airman Jamie Samuels at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.
Samuels' story, titled "the many hats I wear," talked about her roles as a mother and a service member. It was also shared on Facebook. In the article, first posted to website Aerotech News in 2020, Samuels said that her daughter's father, also an airman in the pararescue career field -- a high demand, high-stress job -- "took on extra assignments to avoid wearing his dad hat."
Both Samuels and Bass' Facebook posts have since been deleted, but screenshots have been shared in social media and chat channels.
Commenters criticized Bass -- who saw it as a story of perseverance and resilience -- for putting a fragmented co-parenting situation on blast.
"When I read the commentary, I saw it in a different lens," Bass said. "I had to reread the story, and after rereading it, I understood how it could negatively impact another airman."
She's since reached out to both airmen and apologized. "It was very important for me to make sure that they knew that it was never the intent [to harm them]," she said.
But the social media blunder won't stop Bass from advocating for airmen online.
"When I'm out and about talking to our airmen and hearing their stories, there're so many times where I wish I had a GoPro [camera] on me or something so that other airmen and other leaders could hear just the remarkable stories that our airmen have and how they've grown into our Air Force," she said. "When we can get to know airmen and what motivated them to join the United States military, it helps us as leaders better continue to support and lead them.
"What I'm trying to get after is to create a culture where every single one of our airmen who do come in and raise their hand feel like they're part of an organization where they can thrive," she explained.
Bass spoke on a number of issues related to social media, her influence and force changes. Her comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Military.com: The Air Force has had a number of reviews, from diversity and inclusion to talent management, in recent months. What are some decisions from these reviews and others that the service plans to announce in coming weeks?
Bass: After being in the seat for about six months, we've really just been building the relationships that we need and kind of the foundation for where we want to get to. I think that 2021 will be a year of executing some of the short-term and intermediate goals that we have with respect to the force. … We've got some uniform board changes that are coming up. I'm looking at the enlisted evaluation system; we are looking at our fitness goals and how to make sure that every airman realizes that fitness is a culture and a lifestyle and directly correlates to readiness. We're trying to make sure that we are addressing and sustaining actions to combat suicides, sexual harassment, sexual assault, discrimination, and then I think you're going to hear us talk more about [extremism in the ranks].
Military.com: As you said, social media has been a tool in trying to get airmen accustomed to having a larger conversation. But it's becoming a problem in the armed forces to a degree since it's been weaponized for people to say things that are either untrue or inaccurate. What's your view now, knowing how negative comments proliferate online, especially from those in uniform?
Bass: I think that social media can be a very powerful tool for good. … Airmen want to go to a place on social media to be able to connect with each other and share information and resources to help each other, become better. I think for that, [these platforms are] helpful to our United States Air Force, because again, it's a grassroots effort that helps in ... that way. Certainly, there are other sites that cause discord and division amongst airmen, amongst service members and amongst Americans. For that, we've got to be better at providing tools to our service members on digital literacy so that we can combat the information warfare that we're in right now.
Military.com: Last month, the Pentagon was tasked to look at social media and extremism as a whole. For airmen who do make disparaging comments online, is there going to be a way to streamline how they are investigated on social media for the comments that they make? Is that something that the Air Force is looking to do?
Bass: We are having the discussions right now on making sure that we get out some guidance on what is acceptable behavior when it comes to online and offline. I've seen on many social media sites, disrespect, harassment, bullying, inappropriate behavior, to include even threats. And, bottom line, that's not OK. And there was no room for that in our Air Force. We've got to create the right and left boundaries for all of our service members, and make sure that they understand that respect is foundational to who we are.
Military.com: Will the services then draw a red line and say, "This is what's going to get you kicked out of the service, if you say these things or believe these things on social media?"
Bass: I don't know that I would offer that it would be things that necessarily kick people out. I think instead, I would frame it in that our airmen are responsible for their actions online and offline. And as a result, we have to have some accountability relative to that, and so that's where we've got to get to.
I would ask that people would just take a step back for a minute and think before they post comments, that they would think about and be mindful of the things that they are influenced by. Again, people have to realize that we're living in an era of information warfare, and there are second- and third-order effects to actions online, and that they can have lasting repercussions offline. We need every airman to understand that, and understand their role that they have with that. In turn, the Air Force has a responsibility to provide some of those guidelines and I think we're going to make sure that we push those things out sooner than later.
Military.com: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders like yourself have said you're worried about morale and mental health in the force. What are you doing to improve these efforts for airmen to get the help they need?
Bass: We actually have a resiliency working group that is ongoing right here in the Pentagon. They've been working toward some solutions. … And so from an enterprise level, we are waiting for that working group to conclude, and that should be done sometime in the March-April timeframe. And we look forward to seeing what are the sustainable actions that the Air Force can do to help provide the tools that every one of our installations needs to be able to advance their resiliency efforts. Also, I'm seeing a ton of movement -- grassroots efforts -- [at the base level] that airmen have connected together and created organizations and platforms for which they can just come together and bring cross-functional teams to help our families and our airmen become more resilient.
Military.com: You are the first woman to be in the top enlisted role for any service. When talking to airmen, does that weigh on you? Is that in the back of your mind?
Bass: It's not lost on me that I'm the first female chief master sergeant of the Air Force, but I don't think about it unless I get asked about it. I'm just doing what I have done for the last, almost 28 years, which is to be an airman, lead as an airman and talk like an airman. It's an honor, and it's humbling, and if I can be a role model to any group of people, then it's even more humbling. I just want to be the best chief master sergeant that can serve our airmen.